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Late Classical Sculpture - VM - Sible de Blaauw

Late Classical Sculpture of the Good Shepherd

A Beloved Theme among the Early Christians

by Sible de Blaauw

A young schepherd carrying a sheep on his shoulders. The almost one meter high marble statue was one of the eyecatchers in the 2015 exhibition Rome - The Dream of Emperor Constantine in the Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam. It is seldom lent out by the Vatican Museums, as it is considered to be the premier piece of the Early Christianity section. The well-known sculpture is usually accompanied by the caption ‘Christ the Good Shepherd’, a well-loved theme within the Christian tradition.

The source of this tradition is the Bible. The Old Testament compares God’s care for humans with a shepherd caring for his sheep (Psalm 23). John the Evangelist calls Christ ‘the Good Shepherd’ (John 10:11). In the Gospel of Luke Jesus himself tells the parable of the lost sheep, in which the shepherd spares no effort to save his sheep: ‘And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices’ (Luke 15:5).

It seems like the maker of this sculpture chose this last verse as his starting point. The sheep-carrying shepherd appears often in the early Christian paintings in the catacombs of Rome as well. No wonder this statue for centuries was considered one of the earliest sculptures of Christ, while it was seen as a third-century work, the time of the oldest murals in the catacombs. Recent times have given way to a more critical view of this statue and Early Christian art. 

In Early Christianity images were far from self-evident. Following Jewish tradition the church fathers (the leading theologians of the early centuries) emphasized the impossibility of depicting God. They had their hands full with warning believers against the pagan worship of idols. Images of God in places of worship and in the official Christian cemeteries were therefore unthinkable. In the catacombs we especially find representations of biblical stories and symbolic or allegorical scenes. The sheep-carriers belong to the latter.

The shepherd or sheep-carrier was a popular motif in classical art. The Greeks were familiar with the Hermes Kriophoros (Ram Bearer), the divine guide of the soul to the hereafter. Many Roman houses and gardens were decorated with statuettes of sheep-carrying shepherds. This type of figure belongs to the idyllic repertoire in praise of the peaceful rural life. The sheep-carrier, moreover, sympathetically represented philanthropy and humane action. Since the exact origin of this figure is unknown, it is impossible to determine whether it was made as a neutral-idyllic scene or as a deliberate reference to the biblical meaning of the shepherd.

The sculpture shows a young man leaning against a tree trunk, dressed in a plain tunic, the shepherd’s work clothes. He also wears a shepherd’s purse hanging crosswise over his partly naked chest. With both hands he grasps the legs of a woolly sheep resting on his shoulders. The way the animal rests against the long curly hair of the shepherd adds intimacy to the scene. Their faces are turned towards each other.

The statue complies to all the rules of classical art concerning proportion and plasticity. It has been severely restored, when it was placed in the Vatican Museums in the 18th century. The legs and arms of the man and the legs of the sheep are largely new additions. Perhaps it even was not an autonomous statue originally, but part of a sarcophagus. Nevertheless the essential parts are still original, which classify the figure as a beautiful work of art of the 4th century.

Made in Rome towards the end of the rule of the Roman emperors this statue may have been appreciated by pagans as well as Christians. After the recognition of the Christian church by Constantine (313), visual art once and for all entered the Christian religious realm. Being Romans these Christians could do little else but employ their visual culture also for the representation of the Christian God. This statue literally stands on the dividing line and is therefore of great importance.

At the end of the 4th century the sheep-carrying figure had received the fixed meaning of Christ the Good Shepherd, among others on sarcophagi. Yet this Christ rendered as humble shepherd also had the youthful and fair facial features reminiscent of Apollo and Orpheus. Although the Bible portrays Christ also as king and saviour, his rendition as shepherd was initially highly favored. In a society where the survival of the fittest was the norm, the Good Shepherd demonstrated the supremacy of godly gentleness.

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The Good Sheperd, Rome (?), 4th century, marble, 95 cm. Vatican, Musei Vaticani – Museo Pio Cristiano inv. 28590.

Sible de Blaauw is professor of Early Christian Art and Architecture in the Art History Department of the Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands.

Book: Sible de Blaauw and Eric Moormann, Rome: The Dream of Emperor Constantine. Art Treasures from the Eternal City. Amsterdam, 2015 (exhibition catalog De Nieuwe Kerk).

ArtWay Visual Meditation July 2, 2017